Eight essentials for staying warm while cold-weather camping

Northern Tier Essentials for staying warm

Scouter Steve Gleasman (in blue) wears the “three W’s,” uses a sled to keep from carrying a heavy pack, and keeps his water bottle tucked inside his coat. These tricks and more are just some of the strategies leaders learn during the Northern Tier Okpik Cold Weather Leader Training held annually in January.

Toes cold? Put on a hat. Your body loses up to half of its total heat in 40-degree temperatures. So, when it’s below freezing and you’re head is uncovered, you could be radiating more than three-fourths of your overall body heat from your head.

Get off your rear end. If you’re sitting on a snow bank or a cold rock, you’re conducting the heat from your body into the surface of the object beneath you. Often, Northern Tier cold-weather campers stand and sit atop thin foam pads.

Beware of frosty fuel. Pouring fuel into a stove? Put on a pair of thick rubber gloves. If it’s sub-zero outside, so is the fuel (since it doesn’t freeze like water). Spill it on your hands and you will have instant frostbite.

Baggy clothes are back in style—at least in the freezing-cold wilderness. Your body heats itself most efficiently when it’s enveloped in a layer of warm air. If your clothes are too tight, you’re strangling the cold right out of your body. Dressing in loose layers helps aid this convection layer of air. Tight clothes or too-tight boots can also restrict blood-flow.

The three W’s: Every cold-weather camper needs to dress for the occasion. You’ll need a wicking layer (long underwear), a “warm” layer (fleece), and a “wind” layer (waterproof shell).

Bundle up! It might be a phrase often heard from your mother, but mom is right about this one. If you’re moving around outdoors in the cold and suddenly stop to eat lunch or take a break, put your warmer layers on—even if you’re not cold. This change in activity will cause your body heat to plummet. Preempt the cold with an extra layer.

Fuel the fire. Feeling cold? Eat a snack. Staying warm is just like keeping a fire burning; every fire needs a steady supply of slow-burning fuel. Unlike a fire, you’re body will also need lots of water to help digest food and stay hydrated.

Wet feet? Grab a bag—a bread bag, that is. The long plastic bag can stretch over your foot and serve as a liner between your sock and your boot.



Read more about the cold-weather camping training at Minnesota’s Northern Tier High Adventure Base.

Make your own Hudson Bay Bread—a hearty snack that will help keep your Scouts going when it’s cold outside.

Learn how to build sturdy snow structures when camping in the forth season.

43 thoughts on “Eight essentials for staying warm while cold-weather camping

  1. Pingback: Heat up winter camping with tips from Northern Tier's Okpik training - Scouting magazine

  2. Don’t know how well fleece keeps you warm when it is wet. I do know that wool keeps you warm wet or dry (but cost some bucks). Second had stores are a good place to look for wool clothing at a good deal.

    • Fleece is a most excellent insulating layer. As alluded to previously, do not use it if there is any chance of it getting wet. And it’s best not to use it as a base layer next to the skin.
      I do not like being cold. So I don’t do it.
      I like Merino Wool or silk longies first. Both are expensive but worth every penny. If really cold, polypropylene is next. Couple warm bulky layers (often fleece) and I’m ready. Top layer must be water resistant.
      Heavy wool socks – I like Thorlos, but other good brands out there.
      Balaclava. Polypropylene or wool topped by a good watch cap.
      Keep the neck warm and sealed.
      I use my head coverings to regulate my comfort. Quickest way to cool off is take your hat off. Warm up, put it back on.

  3. Before getting the foot wet – when the high for the day is below 14 deg F (dry cold), put the plastic bread bag on the foot (under the sock) as a vapor barrier.

    • If you’re hiking or extremely active, put liners or another thin wicking material in between the plastic bag and the foot to absorb sweat.

  4. Pingback: Eight essentials for staying warm while cold-weather camping | Camp Epic Kids

  5. After putting something on your head put something around your neck. It’s a great way to regulate your body temperature as you move and rest.

  6. My wife would say to stay inside by the fireplace. One tip that I use, is to wear two pair of socks with a plastic bag inbetween the socks. You can use Walmart/Kroger bags, produce bags, ice bags (without the ice of course). They are thin but hold in body heat pretty well.

  7. All the above are good effective techniques. I’ll add an addendum to the baggy clothes and bundle up techniques: Dress in several layers of wool, polyester, down and nylon. I love having Merino wool as my first layer; it’s soft and very warm and transfers moisture to my next layer (fleece) very well. When it’s really cold and I’m just standing around I use down as my top insulator, and just to emphasize the 3rd W: ya gotta have wind protection and nylon is the best. This includes your legs!

  8. Keep feet from sweating by using antiperspirant on feet every day weather gets cold. Only use silk, wool or layers that transport moisture away and out . Stay dry, hydrated well fed and warm. Use hats, balaclavas, mittens as needed. Just be prepared.

  9. Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves as the shared finger warmth is not dissipated by the air space between gloved fingers. There are glove/mitten combos available that cover the wrist/palm/lower fingers and have a flap that can cover the tips of the fingers or leave them open to manipulate items. Mine have come in handy (no pun intended) on several frosty trips here in Virginia.

  10. Can’t have fun if you’re cold and you will be cold if you are wet. Brush loose snow off your buddy. Change into NEW dry clothes at night (everything especially socks underwire).

  11. Pingback: Cold Weather Camping Tips

  12. In addition to the suggestions already made remember the golden rule: sweat will chill you faster than the wind. Pace yourself so that your movement doesn’t cause you to sweat profusely. If you feel the drip down your back, it’s too late. The faster you walk the more you must vent. Up Zipping: un-zipping your shell from the belly up is a vastly overlooked way to vent, yet is very effective.

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  14. C -O -L -D
    CLEAN: Start with clean body and clothing. Don’t let them get too dirty. It matts down the warming effect.

    OVERHEAT: Avoid it! If you sweat you’ll get cold!

    LAYERS: Loose Layers! Trap the warmth but don’t strangle your body. It has to pump blood to all your parts.

    DRY: Stay that way! Water on your skin takes heat away.

  15. Avoid campfires on snowy campouts. Reason: (a) Scouts get too close to it fully clothed, which tricks the body into thinking it’s inside and you perspire in your bundle. (b) You open your coat near the fire, and get your front warm but back is still cool. Body becomes out of blalance, you walk away from fire and freeze. (c) The fire creates water, which dampens everything around it and creates ice afterwards. Answer is to stay dry (change socks and damp clothes frequently, especially at bedtime), stay dressed in layers and don’t forget to DE-layer when working hard so you don’t perspire too much. Stay hydrated… dehydration promotes hypothermic conditions. Eat a TON of calories to make body heat. Hot soup is the best crackerbarrel snack… raman noodle soup is a Troop favorite on snow campouts. – Scoutmaster Mike.

  16. Before turning in, remove the clothes you wore during the day and put on a dry t-shirt and dry sox, then a dry sweat shirt and dry sweat pants. Moisture (water vapor) from your body will be in the clothes that you wore during the day and will get cold and clammy at night. Put the clothes you wore during the day (not the outer garments) inside of your sleeping bag so that they get warm and partially dry while you’re asleep

    • Don’t forget the stocking hat. We tell the kids to change clothes and wear a hat. The chimney part of this story is true while sleeping too. Heat goes out the head.

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  18. I always change my socks and t-shirt before going to sleep – perspiration from the days activities can make you cold overnight. Also, I put the clothes I plan to wear the next day in my sleeping bag with me at night. Your body will warm them so when you get dressed in the morning you are not putting on cold garments.

  19. Next days’ clothes can go in your sleeping bag at night to keep warm.
    I have had a friend also keep his MSR fuel bottle in his bag to keep his fuel warm.
    Great tips!

  20. I chose to wear gators over my boots.
    I also put on a cotton sock base layer then wool socks.
    I have allways put foot warmers directly on skin instead ob between layers

    • hand and toe warmers right against skin can cause burns. A gal in our group did this and she regretted it. It was close to blistering.

  21. Lots of good advice in this thread. And if it works for you, don’t stop doing it.
    Here are some of my other experiences:
    If snowy, the previously mentioned gaiters are priceless. Good, cheap ones are available.
    I used to use the cotton socks/plastic bag base layer on my feet. Worked. Have moved to a dedicated liner wicking sock (synthetic material) under a heavy wool ‘mountain or hunting’ style sock.
    Waterproofness and warm air retention is accomplished by a pair of good insulated (usually kind of expensive) L.L. Bean style boots. A full size larger than what I normally wear.
    I pack a pair of bulky warm mittens too. And, since I have Scouts to worry about, I buy the little hand warmers in bulk.
    Keep toes and fingers comfortable by sealing your neck area and using warm headgear. I promise it works.
    I am not enamored by ‘down’ filled stuff. Unquestionably warm, but too much maintenance and a real problem when it gets wet. Man-made synthetics are getting really, really close to equalling down’s performance with much less hassle.
    My most uncomfortable minutes are getting re-dressed after I wake up in the mornings. Brrrrrr……

  22. Couple of things: I don’t really agree with the plastic bag over the socks and under a boot. The bag doesn’t breath, so even in cold weather, moisture leaving the body through the skin will accumulate, making your feet damp and cold FROM THE INSIDE. A loose fitting extra layer of wool or a boot with a flannel liner will do much better. Re: fleece — cotton fleece will absorb moisture, chilling the body, but properly processed polypropylene wicks similar to wool and is a less expensive alternative. Love the three w’s acronym.

  23. Thanks for the comments… I’ve not tried the plastic bag as I was always taught that it would only store moisture and make the feet cold.
    What I’ve learned snow camping (last years Okpik was -20 w/o wind chill… BTW, Eagle Scout Paul Siple created that term!)
    +No campfire for the reasons stated.
    +Calories…must fuel the “fire” inside.
    +Lots of layers, 3Ws.
    +Mittens are better than gloves. Can also use heavy socks over your gloves as an extra insulator.
    +Exercise some before getting in your bag. Gets the blood pumping.
    +Don’t go to bed with cold feet. They’ll rarely warm up in the bag. I always have cold feet so use a Nalgene filled with hot water, tightly sealed and covered by a sock to warm the toes. Keeps the toes warm, gives me a warm liquid to drink in the a.m or when needed. When empty, it can save a trip outside… :-)

    Always more to add… SM Dan

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  27. In 2010 i shivered through 3 weeks in bridgport USMC survival school. Talking with a sniper there there is something called the 5 Vs. the left and right side of the neck, under each armpit. and the crotch. i would heat up rocks and put one in each V. this helped greatly sleeping in a blizzard with no sleeping bag.

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  29. wool is the best….cover yor body with wool from top to bottom before you have vind/rain-safe clouths on the out. There is also socks made of camelhair that are 3times warmer then wool(they are realy very hot on your feet,I only use them when it is very very cold (about minus 20-30c).

  30. Another thing to do to stay warmer is to pee frequently…..if your bladder is full of urine, your body is wasting energy to keep it warm…..if you have to pee, then pee a lot…..holding it in does not make you warmer, it makes you colder…..this comes from people that live near the Artic Circle in Alaska….

  31. The bags on your feet are not a good idea because they wont allow moisture or sweat the be wicked by you socks. Eventually your foot will be soaked and you could get blisters on a long hike. If your feef are wet it might be time to get new boots

  32. Plastic bags over the feet is a bad idea. Not sure why that is on there, but every time I have seen scouts try it to keep feet dry there have been blisters and chaffing from all the body moisture the bag traps next to your skin. Even when the bag is outside the liner; all the bag does is let the moisture build up in the liner itself instead of allowing it to do its job of wicking it away from the skin to be absorbed in the thicker socks. No matter if the day is hot or cold, that just adds up to miserable feet. Let them breathe! Sprinkle some Goldbond powder in wicking liners to help keep your feet dry, pull on some merino wool or good synthetic socks–always avoid cotton socks for these sort of things–and drop a little more Goldbond in your boots to reduce friction. Never had a problem.

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  34. To keep your head and face warm at night I suggest using a face blanket. It has a special breathing hole that lets you breathe outside air but keep your nose warm. I won’t go cold weather camping without.

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